Want to understand Millennials better? Look in the Mirror!

Nicole Ertas, Author, Free Range Brands

Want to understand Millennials better? Look in the Mirror!

Seems like every non-Millennial has a pretty strong opinion of Millennials, good or bad.   And as corporate leaders, we’re feeling their influence from customer demand and expectations to recruiting and retention.  There’s no escaping it:  the Millennials are here.  And at 80 million strong, with a whole new mode of social communication, understanding this new breed can seem daunting.

But looking a bit deeper, we might find that Millennials aren’t the disrupters of the world as we knew it.  And, for that matter, neither is technology  … in isolation, anyway.  The changes we are experiencing are fueled by far more than just new technology and young minds. What we’re seeing today is actually directly powered by a generation that you and your leadership team might actually be a part of.  We’ve simply reached a cultural tipping point.

We are in a coming-of-age of ideas and conversations that have been happening around dinner tables for generations. And understanding the context behind what is driving these conversations unlocks an inside line on your emerging customers, prospective employees, future investors, and the evolving business community at large.

So, while the modern landscape feels chaotic, there really is a method to the madness.


For the last 50 years, marketers dished it out. Consumer watchdog groups such as the Ralph Naders of the world tended to be sideline fanatics who often appealed to the fringe: the conspiracy theorists. Big companies wouldn’t lie; why would they? They were the experts, the authority. Consumers didn’t have the data or the facts. Trust was the alchemy that held the whole system together.

The seeds of mistrust started to sprout with the Boomers, who broke from their parents’ generation, The Silent Generation. Boomers were the original counter-culture generation. Older Boomers were on the frontlines of activism, while younger Boomers embody the values characterized by optimism and drive. 

So it’s no surprise that these everyday conversations led to curiosity and questions. Questions that found their way to corporate customer call centers, where they were buried, ignored, or responded to with a form letter. But the worms of curiosity didn’t die. They grew.

Older Boomers used their megaphones, marches, and posters to demand answers and changes on big issues that made the news and got attention. They were the first generation to speak out against institutions and governments, seeking the truth and driving for change. Vietnam, Ohio State, Apartheid, Watergate.   Younger Boomers carried forth the drive to be progressive thinkers and independent, truth-seekers who support activism and change.  Today, they are the forever-young generation that always intends to remain relevant.  And these younger Boomers grew up to pass their values of being change agents and influencers on to their kids: the Millennials.

And, besides being the digital natives, Millennials have a unique, holistic distinction from any generation that precedes them: they really like their Boomer parents. Consider these facts:

  • 33% of Millennials are currently living at home;† 

  • 45% of Millennials talk with their parents on the phone daily;† 

  • Millennials enjoy closer, more friendly relationships with their parents than previous generations.‡ 

† 2015 Pew Research Center

‡ Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, Millennial Makeover 

This is a radical departure from any parent-child generational relationship in history, in which kids tend to reject, rebel, or at the very least, seek to outdo or rethink how they were brought up.  

Raised surrounded with endless media, Millennials had a 24/7, front-row booster seat to the world stage of unprecedented tragedy, disaster and scares. But despite it all, these kids grew up with a Boomer-infused conviction that they had the power to be seen and heard, and the responsibility to invoke real change.

As they came of age, Web 1.0 turned into Web 2.0: User Generated Content.

Kitchen tables turned into global pulpits and a whole new mode of consumer communication hatched. The ugly wizards behind the Big Brand curtains were forced to face their consumers on a very public stage. And Mutiny by Transparency began.

It may seem like technology and social media have spurned an overnight upheaval of the world we live in. But what we’re seeing is five decades of generational momentum hitting the fan. It is nothing more than everyday conversations finding their voice and power through a better megaphone.

What this means is Millennials aren’t singlehandedly rethinking the world. They are the executors of the ideas that their parents never saw across the finish line. The baton has been passed and they are using their digital prowess to finish what their parents started.

And, in turn, we unearth a clearer picture of not just 80 million Millennials, but of 160 million people who are at the core of changing everything: the two largest generations in history working together, often still living together, and fueling and supporting each other.

Which suggests that the idea of being a “Millennial” may be less of a demographic and more of a collective, cultural mindset. 

So next time you’re confronted with how to evolve your target market, or how to create a corporate culture that the new generation will thrive in, ask yourself, as a change-agent, an influencer, a progressive thinker and do-er:  If anything were possible, what would appeal to you?  

You might just find you think more like a Millennial than you might have imagined.

[Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

About the Author

Nicole Ertas is a recognized global brand strategist, author, and speaker who has helped build many of the world’s finest and most powerful brands. Her thinking has been embraced by companies such as Beam Suntory, Wrigley, SC Johnson, Mike's Hard Lemonade, Johnson & Johnson, General Mills, Kraft, and Nestle. Nicole's success in global innovation and brand leadership gained her recognition in Forbes and The New York Times, as well as selected to be one of Crain's Chicago 40 Under 40. Her latest book is Free Range Brands. Follow Nicole on Twitter @freerangebrands or subscribe to her newsletter by visiting http://www.freerangebrands.com/